Time for Your Western Conference Wake-up Call: Don’t Sleep on the Clippers!

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The Clippers can sense the spotlight has shifted away from them. Executives with rival teams in the West say they no longer “fear” the Clippers; the word “stale” comes up a lot in discussing the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in its fourth season together.

Fans seem to find the Clippers either boring or villainous — a flopping, whining group of highlight-chasing prima donnas who fail in the biggest moments. We swoon over the Warriors and Grizzlies, dissect the Rajon Rondo trade, applaud LaMarcus Aldridge’s courage in gritting through a thumb injury, and sweat as the Spurs and Thunder struggle to find their form.

The Clippers? We barely notice anymore. “I guess people expected us to go 65-17 or win the first 20 games of the season,” Jamal Crawford says with a laugh. “They crowned us, and now we’re a disappointment.”

It’s true, the Clippers have structural flaws on defense and in the front office, but it’s time to start noticing them again. They’re 33-16, the same record they had at this point last season, near the time they became a sexy championship pick. They have the league’s best offense and trail only the Warriors in point differential. They have won five straight games against current Western Conference playoff teams, including three 20-point squashes and a 14-point win over the Warriors on Christmas.

Look past the history and the histrionics, and everything about these guys screams “title contender.” So why don’t we talk about them as such anymore?

It’s the Offense, Stupid

It doesn’t seem like the Clippers should have the NBA’s most powerful offense for a second straight season. They don’t start a jump-shooting big man with 3-point range; both Griffin and Jordan are rim-rattlers at heart; and when Griffin attacks the paint, spacing gets cramped:

They’re 28th in the league in drives per game, ahead of only the Wizards and the triangular Knicks. It used to be impossible to keep Paul out of the restricted area. Now he’s 29 and averages just five drives per game — fewer than every starting point guard save for Patrick Beverley, Darren Collison, and the rotating placeholders in Boston and Indiana, per NBA.com’s SportVU data.

They shoot a ton of 3s, but not the sort that busts NBA defenses. Paul is scorching from deep, but he’s selective, and he needs time to load up those aging knees; he’s not popping a half-dozen 3s off the bounce, Damian Lillard– and Steph Curry–style, if defenders duck under screens. Matt Barnes is having the best shooting season of his life, but nobody guards him:

BARNES1

BARNES2

Barnes is probably still a net-negative for the Clippers’ spacing, which raises an interesting question: How many 3s does a guy have to take, and make, before his accuracy outweighs the negative value of his man clogging the lane?

Crawford is a league-average bomber — dangerous enough to can some high-wire jobs, but not so much that teams change their game plans to account for him. J.J. Redick, forever scampering around screens, is the only Clipper who inspires that kind of fear.

Only the Lakers jack more long 2s in the first half of the shot clock, per SportVU data provided to Grantland. That’s hardly the profile of a killer modern offense, even if Griffin has worked his ass off rebuilding his midrange jumper.

There is a sense of predictability about the Clippers offense — that it lacks a certain dynamism, that extra oomph you need to squeeze out points against Western Conference defenses in the playoffs. The Warriors could probably play the Clippers in their sleep by now. Griffin’s post game is a powerful weapon in some matchups, but he doesn’t have the height, length, or touch to score against the best post defenders. He eviscerated David Lee in last season’s first round but faltered against Thunder defenders he couldn’t dislodge or shoot over.

Even Paul, perhaps the greatest point guard of his generation, can be swallowed up in the wrong matchup. He’s only 6-foot-0; monsters like Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Allen can suck up the airspace Paul needs for those right elbow daggers.

The Clippers’ roster composition makes it so playoff opponents are fine siccing bigger wing players on Paul. Barnes, Redick, and Crawford are all skilled, but none has the post-up heft to punish the point guard whom opponents might hide on them. The Clippers are still fishing for a bigger wing, but as they found out in their failed chase for Jeff Green, they don’t have any assets that interest anyone.

Coincidentally, Paul his lived through this exact movie before as the alpha dog on a team built around himself, a versatile power forward with a solid midrange jumper (David West), a lob-catching center (a young Tyson Chandler), and a random gaggle of wings. That New Orleans team topped out in the conference semifinals, and there are only a couple of teams that won titles without a star-level wing player.

There is something to the idea that playoff defenses can grind down the Clippers’ scoring machine, but it’s easy to exaggerate that handicap. The Clippers live in so-so spacing already. They operate in tight confines every night, and they’ve adopted the skills to thrive in that sort of environment.

They don’t waste possessions; only the Hornets turn the ball over less often, per NBA.com. The combined passing brilliance of Griffin and Paul allows the Clippers to ping the ball through those tight spaces. Griffin might be the finest passing big man in the league,1 capable of catching the ball above the foul line and picking out cutters and shooters:

The Clips are polished, and polish doesn’t wear off in the postseason. Their offense held steady against Golden State and Oklahoma City last spring. Only a once-a-decade shit-storm of bad decisions and shaky officiating — including a replay rule the league may well change in the near future2 — kept the Clippers from going up 3-2 on the Thunder with a chance to clinch a conference finals berth at home. And that was during the heart of the Donald Sterling scandal.

They may be stale and predictable, but what the Clippers do on offense works. That is the plus side of having so much roster continuity. “Sure, it’s frustrating that some of the guys have been together three or four years and still haven’t taken that next step,” Crawford says, “but we have the blueprint. The really good teams — they stay together a long time.”

Bottom line: The Clips should score enough to contend with anyone in the West.

Doctoring the Roster

Still, there is risk in being stale. If you know the steps by heart, you might not execute them with the same vigor you did when you were learning them. Opponents always know what’s coming. There is no margin for error in the West; even a team as good as the Clippers could use a jolt of unpredictability.

Spencer Hawes might represent the Clippers’ only hope for such an injection of crazy, in part because of the way the Clips signed him. They lavished the full midlevel exception upon him, triggering a rule that caps the Clippers’ payroll at $4 million above the luxury tax. The Clips were only about $1 million below that after beating out Portland for Hawes, and they had just 12 players under contract.

They needed flexibility in case they encountered injuries or a chance at a good trade. How Doc Rivers achieved that flexibility was nothing short of a disaster. Rivers flipped Jared Dudley and a first-round pick to the Bucks for two players he could waive immediately with little penalty. That freed up money to sign Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Ekpe Udoh to minimum contracts.

Udoh doesn’t play, Turkoglu probably shouldn’t, and Rivers traded Douglas-Roberts in the three-team deal that netted his son. The Clippers lost Reggie Bullock, a potential end-of-the-rotation wing, in the same deal, and they flat waived Jordan Farmar after using the precious biannual exception to sign him.

The Clippers in essence paid a first-round pick to dump Dudley, and then cycled through a half-dozen players who have contributed next to nothing — all while Dudley thrives as a hybrid forward in Milwaukee. They could have simply kept Dudley and signed a 13th player to the minimum salary. That might not have been realistic, since the Clips would have had zero flexibility in case of an injury wave, but it’s a better alternate universe than their reality. The Clippers do have enough room now to chase someone on the buyout market, and if things break right, they could find some valuable depth there over the next six weeks.

Mortgaging so much for a backup in Hawes is a huge gamble. We have indisputable evidence now that the Paul-Griffin-Jordan core can get you 55 wins every year with good coaching and a decent supporting cast. Keep plugging away at that level and one postseason you might land the right combination of matchups, good health, and injury luck to nudge you over the top.

The 2011 Mavericks are probably the best recent example of a “keep plugging away” champion. But they also understood when their core needed a shake-up, and they nailed one such move by nabbing Chandler on the cheap. Even the Spurs, bastions of continuity, vaulted back into title contention by dotting the fringes with reclamation projects (Danny Green, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw) and one swing-for-the-fences trade for Leonard.

Those fringe moves are low-percentage plays. Think of how many revival busts the Heat churned through before landing on Hassan Whiteside. You need a lot of opportunities to increase your odds of a hit, and that is where the Hawes signing could hurt the Clippers — and why the Clips need him to perform starting now. The Clippers can’t trade any of their first-rounders before their 2021 pick, and they’ve dealt all of their second-rounders through 2018.

They are out of trade chips, and if they re-sign Jordan this summer at something close to his maximum salary, they won’t be able to use the full midlevel exception without dealing away at least one core player. (They should absolutely pay up for Jordan, by the way. He gets better on both ends every season, he’s a legit rim protector, and the Clippers would have no cap room to replace him if he walks. Paying him the max sounds like a lot, but this is the last summer before the cap skyrockets under the league’s new national TV deal. A long-term “max” from this summer will take up much less of the cap than a max signed just one year later.)

Hawes backs up two guys who can play 40 minutes a night in the playoffs. The Clippers could have found cheaper big men to eat those scrap minutes without forcing the cascade of bad deals the Hawes contract triggered. Workable bigs like Ed Davis and Lavoy Allen signed for the minimum. The mini midlevel might have been enough to lure Kris Humphries, a dynamite third big, freeing the Clips to troll the minimum bin for extra wings. You can always trade for intriguing backups like Kyle O’Quinn or Miles Plumlee if you get creative.

But none of those guys can shoot 3s, and the Clippers thought Hawes’s combination of size and shooting made him the rare big who could play alongside both Griffin and Jordan — and minimize the damage of Jordan’s awful foul shooting. Most league executives applauded the signing at the time. Hawes would space the floor around Griffin-Jordan dives to the rim, whip smart outside-in passes, and toggle between opposing bigs on defense.

It just hasn’t worked — yet. Hawes seems uninvolved. He hasn’t settled in playing next to a volume shooter like Crawford, and Rivers clearly doesn’t trust Hawes’s plodding defense. “He’s not in a rhythm,” Crawford says. “But we signed him for a reason, and at some point, you’ll see why.” Playing Griffin and Hawes together leaves the rim unprotected:

Jordan can cover for Hawes’s mistakes, but Hawes has to chase around quicker power forwards in that alignment.

Still, the Clips didn’t sign Hawes for his defense, and he has perked up a bit on offense in the last couple of weeks. Hawes can chill in the corner, allowing Griffin to bull-rush the rim unimpeded on pick-and-rolls:

Some teams, including the Spurs when the Clippers dismantled them on Saturday in San Antonio, will flip their big-man matchups to account for the Hawes-Griffin pairing — sending a bulkier center to deal with Griffin’s post game so that a quicker forward can stick to Hawes outside. Griffin can blow by most centers off the dribble.

The Clippers need to impose that kind of stress on opposing defenses, because they don’t have the goods to build a top-five defense themselves.

Wait, It’s About Doc’s Defense, Too

The Clippers mix up coverages3 more than most teams, but their base defense is an aggressive system designed to mask the weaknesses of their individual defenders — especially on the wing. They attack pick-and-rolls far out on the floor instead of dropping their big men back like Tom Thibodeau, Rivers’s old assistant, prefers in Chicago.

Jordan and Griffin handle the job differently, but the end result is the same: two defenders will chase one opposing ball handler 30 feet from the hoop. In that moment, the remaining three Clippers defenders are guarding four players — their original three assignments, plus the big man rolling to the rim.

CLIPSD

It’s a high-stress system that requires perfect synchronization. Players have to fold in, out, and in again — like one big accordion. Someone has to rotate in to stop the rolling big guy, and everyone has to shift around the floor to cover for that helper. If the Clips snuff out the first action, everyone has to scramble back to their original assignments at precisely the right time; Griffin and Jordan sometimes have to switch on the fly, taking whichever opposing big is closest to them amid the chaos.

It’s beautiful when it works:

The Clippers have gotten pretty damn good at it. You can tell this is Year 2 in Rivers’s scheme. Only Phoenix has contested a higher percentage of opponent 3s, according to SportVU data provided to Grantland by Seth Partnow, one of the masterminds behind the must-read blog Nylon Calculus.4

And yet, they’re a foul-happy group that stands just 16th in points allowed per possession, with an obvious deficit in wing defense.

“I’ve been hearing that for a while,” Crawford says about concerns over the Clippers wing defense. “We don’t have that primary lockdown guy, but Matt Barnes is pretty good. J.J. is a heck of a team defender. We can be better than some people think.” We’ll find out soon, as the Clips are in the middle of an eight-game road trip and a brutal 15-game stretch — a road-heavy bloodbath that could shove them down a couple of spots in the West standings.

Redick tries to ignore the chatter. “I’ve never been motivated by what other people say,” he says. “That would be exhausting. I believe in team defense. I think we have enough to get it done.”5

The difference between a Clippers win and loss is often just L.A. being a bit better at the little things on a given night — timing rotations correctly, keeping their hands up in passing lanes, and being on the same page in switching assignments. They got stingier as last season went on, and they’re confident they can tighten up when the games matter. They’d better, because teams are well-versed in attacking them now.

Watch the Spurs use an initial Tiago Splitter pick-and-roll to lure Griffin out, and then flip the ball to Tim Duncan for a big-to-big passing sequence that beats Griffin’s retreat:

The Grizzlies smoked the Clippers with this kind of big-to-big passing. The Warriors broke L.A.’s defense last season by baiting the Clippers into traps and then whipping the ball to shooters all over the floor. Good teams can drive and pass faster than the Clippers can rotate when L.A. is just a hair off-kilter.

The Clippers are fond of saying it doesn’t matter that they don’t have one killer wing defender — that no one plays one-on-one anymore. But it does matter. Wings have to work through a bunch of screens, back cuts, and rotations on every defensive possession, and the Clippers wings don’t quite have the goods to withstand that kind of constant pressure. Run them enough and someone will break.

Barnes is their best wing defender, but he’s 34 and he’s getting creaky. He has trouble staying balanced on close-outs; opposing wings can pump fake, dribble by him, and poke fatal holes in the Clips defense:

And there will be games when the one-on-one matchups matter — when opponents disable the system and just attack some weak link. The Pelicans snuck out a win against L.A. last weekend by sending their bully guards right at the chests of Redick, Crawford, and Barnes on consecutive crunch-time possessions. Any wing with decent post-up skills is going to be a problem, to say nothing of all-around terrors like Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Not every team has such a player. Matchups and health are everything in the playoffs, and the Clippers could luck into a postseason path in which the one-on-one wing threat peaks at Leonard or Klay Thompson. The Clippers are good enough to win the West if just a couple of variables flip their way. Their defense got better as last season went on. The combination of killer offense and a defense nipping at the top 10 can get you very far.

They need a little more juice on the wing to make themselves matchup-proof, and their limitations on defense will probably cost them in the end again this season. But an appearance in the Finals wouldn’t be an absolute, blow-away shock, and another loss before the conference finals wouldn’t be a signal the Clips need a full-scale rebuild — a move away from the Jordan-Griffin-Paul foundation. Such is life in the West, where any team can lose in the first round.

The Clippers just need a small boost to maximize their title odds during the last of Paul’s prime. That’s what makes the Rivers family situation so interesting. Overpay Austin Rivers and they will have fewer resources to beef up the wing both this summer and in the vaunted summer of 2016.

Don’t sleep on these guys — now, next season, or going forward. Everyone loves to hate them, but the Clippers are firmly in the championship picture. They just need a little more luck than a few of the other teams jostling for center stage.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Hassan Whiteside’s Touch

It’s almost hard to recall now, but Whiteside started his Heat resurrection as a typical bench lug, only with a tad more explosiveness and intrigue. He blocked shots, munched rebounds, and dunked on the pick-and-roll. He stayed in his lane.

Turns out, that was just Stage 1 of the Whiteside takeover. The big fella has no lane now, and he’s showing a feathery touch on midrange jumpers and a variety of post moves — jump hooks, short floaters, and a preposterous turnaround bank shot he broke out in Boston on Sunday. Whiteside probably can’t keep up his ridiculous level of play, but he has already passed the “flash in the pan” threshold. The Heat have him locked up through next season on a minimum contract — a crazy bargain.

2. Donatas Motiejunas’s Push Shot

Speaking of Western Conference teams without a 3-point-shooting big man! Motiejunas is getting there, but he’s more of a corner-3 specialist for now. But he’s also skilled enough in the paint to keep Houston’s offense moving even amid tighter spacing than Daryl Morey wants.

Motiejunas has been one of the league’s very best post-up players — he’s shooting 56 percent on post-ups, per Synergy! — and he can manufacture buckets on the pick-and-roll even when an opponent big man guarding Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, or Terrence Jones blocks his path to the rim:

Motiejunas’s emergence is one of the best and most important stories of this season.

3. Markieff Morris’s Left Hand

Morris is developing into one of the finest all-around young big men in the game, and he has broken out already as the Suns’ best crunch-time option. The superior Morris is 15-of-27 from the floor in the last three minutes of games in which the margin is three or fewer points, the third-best shooting mark among 44 players who have attempted at least 15 such shots, per NBA.com.6

The Suns are comfortable dumping it in to Morris, and he has an endless bag of post moves — including some soft lefty shots:

The Suns signed Morris to a four-year, $32 million extension that is going to be one of the best bargains in the league.

4. The State of Prof. Andre Miller, PhD

Let’s just say I’m not ready to live in a world where Garrett Temple takes minutes from the Professor. The whole point of tenure at Point Guard U is to retain your job even when your performance slips below the level of younger peers! Does Randy Wittman not get this?

Look, Miller hasn’t been able to guard anyone in years, and he’s had more trouble than expected running the offense and working his ass-first post game within Washington’s second unit. I concede all of this on an intellectual level. That doesn’t mean I can handle it emotionally. RAGE, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, ANDRE!

5. Sacramento’s Perimeter Defense

It’s just horrid across the entire roster. Collison has improved, but he still turns himself in knots navigating screens. Rudy Gay has regressed, resorting too often to lazy reaches on his help-and-recover assignments. Ben McLemore is still an NBA baby, which means he gets lost a lot on and off the ball; watch him take just about the worst route possible in trying to dodge a Jonas Valanciunas pick on the right side of the floor:

This is typical. The Kings are lost — as usual.

6. LeBron’s Corner Blitzes

When LeBron is really tuned in, there is nothing quite like it in the NBA. He bounces on his toes, eyes darting back and forth, searching out an opportunity to inflict the kind of game-changing pain only he can dish out. He has the ability to make plays no one else can and the license to try anything — a deadly combination.

Watch him in the right corner here. He’s nominally guarding Gerald Henderson, but he’s really reading the little flex action the Hornets are trying — with Gary Neal setting a pick for Al Jefferson under the rim and then making a 90-degree turn toward a Cody Zeller pick at the top of the key. LeBron has seen this play a million times, from this exact angle. In Miami, the Heat would often switch on this action, with the defender in the corner (LeBron) leaping out to Neal.

Look at LeBron! He’s itching to make that switch before Neal has even set his pick:

Poor Brian Roberts, handling the ball, is like a horror movie victim who doesn’t see the villain creeping up behind him. NO, BRIAN, NO!!! LOOK OUT!!! OH GOD IT’S TOO LATE HE’S ALREADY DEAD.

7. “D-Faves” and/or “Faves”

I am admittedly not a great nickname artist, but we as a nation (both Jazz and otherwise) must do better than this nickname crutch that Utah’s TV crew favors. It’s uncreative and the underlying slang is lame.

8. The Greek Freak’s Shooting

We knew it would take Giannis Antetokounmpo a while to master pretty much any NBA skill, but he shot a respectable 34.7 percent from deep last season on 118 attempts. Competence from long range didn’t seem too far off.

But the Greek Freak has backslid, badly, in Year 2. He’s 5-of-27 from long range, and his paranoia about even shooting the ball is infecting Milwaukee’s offense. Defenders know they can stray off him, and when the Bucks kick the ball Antetokounmpo’s way, he tends to hold it or dribble aimlessly as the defense resets itself. That’s not always bad, since Antetokounmpo is a solid one-on-one driver, but he can stall out the Bucks offense.

It probably doesn’t matter. It’s still so early in Antetokounmpo’s career, and he’s made progress across so many areas of his game already. But he has to craft a jumper almost from scratch.

9. Jeff Green’s Elevator Doors Solution

The elevator doors play has swept the NBA over the last two years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone try to leap through them as Green did here:

Huge points for creativity.

10. “Facilitator” Glorification

One thing I won’t miss about Kobe Bryant over the rest of the season: announcers, both local and national, leaping all over themselves to declare Bryant a “facilitator” over and over when Bryant passes more than usual. “OH, HE’S SHIFTING INTO FACILITATOR MODE!!!!” This usually comes after Bryant throws a pass any thinking player would understand as the proper play in a given situation.

If someone like Joe Johnson throws an equivalent pass, the announcer might say, “Nice pass out of a double-team there by Johnson.” But if Kobe tosses it, he has morphed into a FACILITATOR. News flash: A guy as skilled as Kobe, who draws so much attention, should be playing “facilitator” for parts of every single game. Passing when you should is not such a remarkable thing.

Filed Under: NBA, Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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